“I’m really interested in images—how visual culture is produced, rather than just fine art,” says Renato Olmedo-González, Director and Gallery Curator for Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts (MICA), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. A December 2013 graduate from the University of Utah in Art History and Latin American Studies, Olmedo-González gravitates toward self-portraiture in fine art. He acknowledges, furthermore, that more pedestrian (nonart) forms of self-portraiture permeate our psyches as digital simulacra via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Selfies have become a ubiquitous element of digital culture that may often read as commonplace visual journaling, but Olmedo-González finds a deeper question in their presence: “Artists have been pretty much the only people that have been able to create an image of themselves, up to this point. Now, with the availability of cameras and phones and smartphones and everything, it’s everybody that’s doing that,” he says. “So, my question is: How are artists working with self-portraiture, keeping that relevant and interesting in today’s time, in the age of the selfie?” Olmedo-González has expanded this thesis as of Sept. 2 with a show at the MICA-run Mestizo Gallery within the associated (for-profit) Mestizo Coffeehouse, entitled SELF_Created: Identity Today.
Although the selfie phenomenon was one force that impelled Olmedo-González to curate this show, SELF_Created will not include any selfies. Rather, he aims “to show a group of artists that work with self-portraiture within their [medium and the] theme and how their ideas reflect bigger concepts in society, [which] goes back [to] their own identity as artists and their own identity as individuals,” Olmedo-González says. He considers the selfie to be “very ‘now,’” but because of its hyperconsumable nature, it evanesces as we scroll through our apps’ interfaces. “Artists don’t do that. They create an image, and that image stays,” he says. Olmedo-González clarifies that he doesn’t aim to demonize selfies with this show, but to pronounce fine-art self-portraiture and to extract the cultural syntheses of each artist’s individual backgrounds. Using these images, he encourages viewers to complicate the cultural issues that come to the fore through this art. He says, “For me, a picture asks more questions rather than provide answers. It visualizes how complex it is or how complex those problems may be.”
A more stark out-of-towner who will show in SELF_Created is Mari Hernandez from San Antonio, Texas. She is a cofounder of Chicana-feminist arts collective Más Rudas in San Antonio, whose collective artists’ statement on masrudas.com adamantly “challenges the view of women as subordinate, passive, inferior, dainty, and polite” on a bicultural plane. Olmedo-González appreciates her ardent act of identification: “Her Chicana-feminist lens, it’s something that I identity with: that whole aesthetic, that theory, that way of looking at things—self-identifying,” he says. “You take in politics that come with your identity. That’s something [where] I personally see myself in her work, even though I’m from Mexico and I’m not Chicano at all.” Hernandez makes photos as well, and one image of hers that Olmedo-González has incorporated into the show is of Hernandez performing herself as Julia Pastrana, a bearded lady. It’s another complication of gender, but as opposed to Cron’s brand of androgyny, Hernandez effectively conflates femininity with the rough contour of the “Rudas” namesake (which roughly translates to “tough”). Wearing a beard and corset, and brandishing arm tattoos, Hernandez calls traditional paradigms of femininity into question with this image.
Enter Ali Mitchell, a 20-year-old BFA candidate at the University of Utah who paints. Olmedo-González first encountered her work at the juried end-of-year BFA show at the U at the end of spring semester 2014. Upon seeing one of her paintings called Sometimes When I Look in the Mirror, which won Runner-Up to Best in Show and the Faculty Choice Award, he was immediately drawn to the piece and bought it. What would be a normal self-portrait painting of a young white woman croaks with automutilation, as horrendous reddish-brown tones mar Mitchell’s face in scar-like textures of paint. “She disrupts her own idea of beauty, what that means for her. It’s something very personal, but I feel like that speaks to a wider audience,” Olmedo-González says. “If she’s looking at herself in such creepy, negative, not-beautiful ways, for me, it just talks about, ‘How am I looking myself?’” In addition to this piece, Mitchell will also present two other paintings and a site-specific piece, which explore similar concepts.